Friday, May 6, 2011

Candy Versus Vegetables

People like to believe that society can be made perfect. Sure, they probably wouldn't admit that they think this way. Most people think they are realistic types, who can make tradeoffs and rationally evaluate a wise path forward. But then those people vote.

I'm coming to believe that, rather than being to uninformed to make smart political choices, most Americans believe in their hearts that their 'team' (as I described it in my last post) has the key to fixing the ills of society, and if it could just be swept into power, all would be well. Most people I know have a hard time even acknowledging that their political opponents are intellectually honest and might be trying to act in what they think is the common good.

Which, finally, brings me to my point: both Democrats and Republicans engage in magical thinking that lets them offer goodies to voters without dealing with our big problems. And no one has figured out a way to fight against this without losing elections. The Democrats want people to believe lavish social services are possible if we just 'tax the rich'. Republicans argue that tax cuts will generate enough growth to pay for themselves. And when members of either party challenge these lies, they are denounced as traitors.

An example: recently, Tom Coburn, no one's idea of a squishy moderate, has been negotiating with Democrats to try to find common cause and attack our deficit problem in a meaningful way. He has expressed willingness to consider some tax increases as part of a compromise deal, though he obviously would prefer not to have them. This has been enough to cause Grover Norquist, a man who has made a nice living for himself by simplifying our fiscal debates to "no new taxes, ever", has said, "[Democrats] are playing Coburn like a Stradivarius." Now, no deal even exists yet. But Norquist wants to hold Coburn to a pledge he (like almost every other Republican politician) has signed at some point: a pledge to never raise taxes. And so political action is made almost impossible.

People also talk about politicians offering 'candy' to constituents, because you can't get elected by telling the electorate to eat its vegetables. But the analogy goes deeper than just contrasting something tasty but ultimately bad for you with something unpleasant but healthful. Candy, unlike vegetables, comes packaged and branded. It's ready to consume. The simple slogans of political absolutism, like "no new taxes", are equally easy. But we've been sucking them down for so long we're going to get sick.

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